Joho the Blog » 2005 » November

November 30, 2005

[Oxford] Ted Nelson

Ted Nelson is giving a talk to about twenty people at the Oxford Internet Institute. (I just gave a talk on taxonomy and the mmiscellaneous.) Ted invented the word “hypertext” and for many years worked on the Xanadu project, a hyperlinked web that gains some advantages over the Web by allowing a degree of centralization. [What follows are the notes I took while Ted was talking. They are quite approximate, and probably dead wrong in spots.]

He talks about the great British engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who wanted the width of RR tracks to be set at the optimally safe distance but lost to the economic interests of the carriage makers. He likewise talks about Nikola Tesla “who invented the modern world,” including the electrical grid. Tesla wanted to give free electricity to everyone in the world by “charging up the electrical field of the planet so that anyone with a coil could just tap off what they like.” Westinghouse stopped backing him as a result of this. “What’s the business model?” Finally, he talks about Wernher von Braun vs. Chuck Yeager. Yeager gets credit for breaking the sound barrier, although (says Nelson) a British pilot preceded him. Nelson says that Yeager later said “I could have gone orbital, but they told me not to.” This was in 1947. Why did we hold Yeager back, he asks. Because, von Braun felt that if he let a little plane got orbital instead of large rockets, it would disrupt his political agenda. Von Braun shared Heinlein’s vision of colonizing space. (Ted says this story is “partially conjectural.”)

The point: There are hidden agendas in most technological decisions. He asks why programs insist on us not entering spaces or hyphens into phone numbers. “The real technical reason is the programmer is a jerk.” The engineer, says Ted, passively-aggressively requires the user to do something “rigorous.” This is the techie mentality at its worst. Software is too important to be left to the techies; they need an “overarching vision.” The reason computer games are so much better than office software is that the people who create computer games love to play games while the people who make office software “don’t give a shit.”

“Today’s computer world is based on techie misunderstandings of human thought and human life.”

He talks about Doug Engelbart who shares Ted’s view that “the current computer world is absolutely lousy.” He lays this primarily at the foot of Xerox PARC’s assumption that the computer GUI ought to imitate paper. Rather, it should enable rapidly changing links among the thousands among ideas and scraps. He shows some great examples of French literary works (e.g., Victor Hugo) literally cut and pasted together. But Xerox PARC called a simple hide and show operation “cut and paste,” thus making it harder to do complex rearrangement of pieces.

From the ’60s, Ted has had the idea that we should have a hypertext world in which anyone can publish, with automatic payment to the authors. “For the last 45 years, I’ve been trying to realize this design vision.” He focuses on the data side because it requires managing vast numbers of links, and paying the rights holders. “I want to make it possible for everything to be remixed.” (Xanadu is now called “Transliterature.”)

His point overall: The computer world is not technologically determined. It is an accident. We can thus change its basic premises.

Q: You are wrong to think that the market is a conspiracy against good ideas, and that freedom is being constrained by regulation and standardization. On the contrary, some regulation results in a greater good.

A: The market hasn’t had a chance for anything else.

Q: You’re like the techies you don’t like. You offer us ideas we should like better. E.g., I like editing on wysiwyg, paper-emulating word processors. And bad sw often results from the people specifying it not really knowing what they want.

I do believe in the great designer theory – Buckminister Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, Orson Welles…

Q: The problem is with the market itself, which results in tech gear being created for a dollar day in China. You should be attacking the market, not the techies.

Ted: Good luck. [Tags:


I got to go to lunch with Ted. Between the noodles he demo’ed ZigZag, which is rather hard for us spatially-impaired to explain. But, here goes. It’s a database designed to permit multidimensional views of information. So, if you feed it information about the line of British royalty, you can view the info by, say, date, and it will arrange itself visually on the screen appropriately. Ask to see familial relations, and it will suitably rearrange itself. It is very much not a row-and-column view, a view Ted finds only occasionally suitable to the data. I think (but my spatial impairment keeps me from knowing for sure) that this would be a cool tool for visualizing facets.

7 Comments »

The room was so small that…

The Quality Crown Hotel Paddington is a perfectly good budget hotel in London – modern, clean, friendly, a block from Paddington station, 80 pounds a night – but I’m a little puzzled. When I got here yesterday afternoon, the person at reception told me that he was upgrading me for free to a larger room. I don’t understand how the room could be any smaller unless the bed were half in the shower or if I were required to share it with the harpoonist from the Pequod.

(Ok, it’s a small room. But I’d stay here again.)


I had a jetlag dream that seemed so important and was so vivid that I couldn’t go back to sleep until I wrote down the key points. In it, I was mistakenly admitted to a group meeting with an unnamed Supreme Court justice. When called upon, I explained that there are three key points: 1. We as a culture are becoming comfortable with huge amounts of information and details. 2. We are astoundingly good at evaluating the metadata around that information, deciding how seriously to take it. 3. The value of this is an increasing tolerance of – nay, demand for – complexity.

So, there’s your answer. Now, what was the question?

5 Comments »

November 29, 2005

What compatibility does not mean. (A whine.)

An hour before I was supposed to keynote the Online Information conference in London, I found out that the copy of my presentation I’d FTP’ed to my site wasn’t working. So I gave the helpful media guy a thumbdrive with the latest version from my Mac. Same problem. When loaded on a Windows PC, the Mac version of my Powerpoints opens in an extreme read-only mode that does not allow it to be modified, saved, or saved-as because I embedded the fonts precisely in order to decrease the risk of incompatibility between Windows and Mac.

After some quick checking on the Web, we discovered that Mac doesn’t support embedded fonts in PowerPoint. So, I think what happened was: I developed the deck on Windows and embedded the fonts. I moved it to the Mac and did some more work on it. I saved it on the Mac. And this screwed it up for the PC.

Tag this: Aaaaarrrrggggghhhh!

(Having a read-only version made life harder for the media guy at the conference, but it all went well ultimately.)

4 Comments »

Isenberg at Oxford

Here’s the webcast of David Isenberg’s talk at Oxford yesterday. I’m on the road and haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet. (I talk there tomorrow. No, it’s not intimidating. Nope. Nope. Nuh-uh. (Must keep telling self that.))

8 Comments »

November 28, 2005

Wikipedia power law

I just heard Jimmy “Wikipedia” Wales give a terrific talk at Nature magazine. (I was his opening act, and couldn’t grab back my computer to take notes.) Wikipedia is just such an amazing story. One for the books, so to speak. In fact, on the drive over, it occurred to me that there’s another amazing phenomenon that, like Wikipedia, seems completely implausible: Cities. If you had the idea that cities might be an interesting addition to human culture, people would have come up with a thousand reasons why they wouldn’t work. Yet, somehow, they do.

Jimmy talked about the fact that two percent of people who make changes at Wikipedia account for nearly 75% of the changes. (As always, I’m more likely to get facts wrong than right.) That flies in the face of the common wisdom that Wikipedia is the work of many equally distributed hands. But it’d be interesting to know how many people create articles, for the changes made by the 2% of dedicated Wikipedians may be quite small. Just curious…

3 Comments »

The e-book reader

For twenty years, the perfect e-book hardware has been 5 years away. We’re now down to waiting for a cheap enough, lower power enough paper-quality display.

Once we have cheap e-books, the medium by which we read will also be a medium by which can write and respond. Reading will cease being a solitary act and will become a social one. You can see this already with blogs.

So, I’ve been assuming that the e-book will mimic the form factor of books: display a page, maybe make a rustling sound as the page is turned. But it’s taking so long for e-books to arrive that they may skip book emulation entirely and be general purpose browsers/composers. They’ll work better for blogs than for books. And this may be the final nail in the coffin of books.

Maybe. (I’d write more, but I have to work on my book…:)

3 Comments »

November 27, 2005

My busy busy week

I leave tonight for four days in Europe. Five talks, three cities (London, Oxford, Helsinki), two countries, four days. I’m looking forward to it because it will be interesting, but I expect to be a gibbering idiot by the end of it, if not at the start of it.

6 Comments »

Schools censoring blogs

Schools censoring blogs

The Wall Street Journal has a good article by Vauhini Vara about schools cracking down on students who say stuff in their blogs. On the unreasonable side:

Others have taken a more aggressive approach. Last month, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson, N.J., banned the students at its 58 elementary schools and five high schools from maintaining personal Web pages on sites like MySpace and Xanga, a blogging service. Marianna Thompson, director of communications for the diocese, said the goal of the ban is to protect students from online predators, as well as to prevent students from harassing or bullying each other. “An unsupervised blog is an inappropriate use of their time,” she said.

Yikes. [Tags: ]

5 Comments »

November 26, 2005

Buffettster Rupert Holmester – Personality Profile

If you like pina coladas They’re a bit too much like an alcoholic milkshake, but sometimes they’re ok.
And getting caught in the rain Not really.
If you’re not into yoga I’m not.
If you have half a brain ?? If I have a whole brain, does that mean I have a half a brain? Or do some people who really have had half their brain removed register on this site? Ambiguous question.
If you like making love at midnight I’m not so much into the scheduled sex thing
In the dunes on the Cape If I get caught at it again, they say there will be “serious consequences,” which I think will get me on the sex offenders registery, so I’m going to have to say no to this one.
Additional comments: This form isn’t very specific. How about asking about pets or sports or something?

[Tags: ]

4 Comments »

November 25, 2005

Clipmarks – Bookmarking smaller pieces

Clipmarks are like delicious bookmarks except: 1. You can bookmark portions of pages; 2. The clipmarked content is kept on the Clipmark servers. 3. It requires you to download a toolbar. Like del.icio.us, it’s free. Unlike del.icio.us, the tags default to private.

Looks quite cool — it automatically selects units of the page — and possibly quite useful. It works with Firefox (Windows, Mac, Linux)and Internet Explorer (Windows).

Here’s the blog of the founder, Eric Goldstein. He’s got an adorable baby, so clearly Clipmarks contains no spyware :) [Tags: ]

1 Comment »

Next Page »